The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released the results of the international exams known as PISA yesterday, and most educators will not be surprised by the bad news. The results of the exams, which tests high schoolers in more than 60 countries, showed that U.S. high-school students demonstrated just average achievement in reading and science.
Even more alarming, U.S. students performed below average in math – in the same ranks as Lithuania and Russia. The consequences of continuing to fail to prepare our kids for college, the workforce and a global economy are clear and troubling.
But hidden in all the OECD data, there's also some very good news. In three states – Massachusetts, Florida and Connecticut – enough students took the exam to measure state specific performance on the international level. Only three educational systems worldwide statistically outperformed Massachusetts in reading, and only six in science and nine in math. If all students in the United States were performing at the level of high-schoolers in Massachusetts, our country would be at the top of the pack among peer nations.
Yesterday's results come at a crucial time. In recent weeks, there's been a growing debate over whether or not states should roll out higher academic standards – known as the Common Core – and it turns out that Massachusetts provides some key lessons on why we need more rigorous goals for our kids. Indeed, the Massachusetts experience suggests that when policymakers set high standards, use well-developed exams, and give teachers additional supports, schools can achieve at much higher levels.
There's little doubt that the Bay State's reform model has helped spark significant achievement gains. Since 1999, for instance, eighth grade math students in Massachusetts have made the highest gains of any participating nation on another international exam, TIMMS. And when we compare student achievement in Massachusetts to other states, the Bay State has either ranked first or tied for first on fourth and eighth grade national reading and math tests since 2005.
How has Massachusetts managed to make these substantial gains? There's not a simple, silver bullet answer. The improvement effort began more than 20 years ago when state legislators passed a major reform law that put rigorous academic goals and well-designed assessments front and center. Importantly, the state also doubled its investment in K-12 education over a seven-year period to help schools and students reach those high standards.
The success of the Massachusetts approach has important implications, especially as states roll out the new Common Core standards – academic goals for what students should be able to do in reading and math at each grade level to ensure high school students graduate ready for the demands of higher education and the 21st century workforce. Inspired in part by the Massachusetts experience, the Common Core standards were developed by governors and state education chiefs, and today more than forty states, including Massachusetts, have adopted these deeply rigorous academic expectations for students.
Yet, despite the success of Massachusetts and the nation's continued woeful scores on international assessments, some critics have recently argued that the state-led Common Core effort is a Washington-led takeover of education. Other critics contend that the standards of the Common Core are too high and that they will spark even more testing in our schools. A few weeks ago, some parents in Arkansas and Louisiana even kept their children home to protest the new standards.
But the success of school reform in Massachusetts demonstrates that many Common Core critics, while well-intentioned, are wrong. In addition, we must emphasize that the Common Core has long been a state-led effort, and the federal government has had no role in the creation of these academic standards. Even more importantly, the Common Core standards are intentionally well-aligned with the skills that college faculty and employers regard as necessary for success. These demanding standards ensure that students develop core academics as well as high-demand, 21st century skills like critical thinking and persuasive writing.